'American Idol': Where Did It Go Wrong?

Joal Ryan
Yahoo TV

Once upon a time, "American Idol" rivaled the Oscars telecast for TV viewers. Last week, it got beat in the weekly Nielsen ratings by the Will Arnett sitcom "The Millers."

"All prominent TV shows eventually go into decline," Jeffrey McCall, professor of communications at DePauw University, said via email.

[Related: Catch Up on 'American Idol' With Our Reality Rocks Recaps]

All things considered, "Idol" is coming in for a soft landing. For the TV season to date, the show's Wednesday edition is averaging more viewers (13.8 million) than all but 11 other broadcast network shows.

But "Idol" isn't just a smaller version of its old self; it's a quieter version of its old self, too. In its recap of a recent performance show, Entertainment Weekly dinged this season's contestants for their "placid mediocrity," for being "JUST NOT GREAT."

The matter of figuring out what happened, of how "Idol" lost its mojo, is a national pastime, one that dates back months, if not years. Was it the judges, the singers, "The Voice"? 

[Related: Surviving Randy Jackson's 'Idol' Workshop: 4 Lessons I Learned From the Dawg]

Two of the most popular theories — the upheaval at the judges' table, and the star power (or lack thereof) among the singers — don't entirely jibe with the numbers.

While "Idol" enjoyed its biggest years under the judging trio of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson, the show maintained its No. 1 Nielsen status after Kara DioGuardi was added in 2009, after Abdul left prior to the start of the 2010 season, and after Cowell and DioGuardi both exited prior to the 2011 competition.

[Related: Jennifer Lopez Returning to Scripted Television in NBC Cop Drama]

In 2011, in fact, the first thoroughly overhauled version of the show, with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler added to Jackson's depleted ranks, enjoyed its most watched season finale (29.3 million viewers) since the heyday of Taylor Hicks, back in 2006.

Hicks discusses Vegas and the mysterious whereabouts of that famous purple jacket:

True, Lopez and company didn't carry their momentum over to 2012, and, also true, the Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj experiment in 2013 didn't stop the ratings slide, nor has the return of Lopez and the debut of Harry Connick Jr. this year.

Jackson tells Ellen DeGeneres about his new "Idol" role:

But still, through it all, the show maintained its advantage as a pop culture influencer.

For a long while, Hicks was the least of all "Idol" champs on the album charts, with sales of "only" about 700,000 units for his first postshow collection. Even when "Idol" reached lower lows with 2009 champ Kris Allen and 2010 champ Lee DeWyze, the show either produced other stars — à la Adam Lambert, who finished second to Allen but sold nearly 1 million copies of his first major album anyway — or bounced back big with the likes of Scotty McCreery, who came up after DeWyze and proved the "Idol" title could still be worth 1.2 million units sold. Phillip Phillips, who succeeded McCreery in 2012, enjoyed a million-selling debut album, too. Phillips's success came even as "Idol" relinquished its Nielsen crown for the first time in nearly a decade. The message was clear: Even if "Idol" wasn't quite "Idol," ratingswise, it was still "Idol." The message, however, wasn't the whole story.

[Related: 'American Idol' Castoff Social Chat: Kristen O'Connor Reveals Her Secret, Non-Singing Talent]

Which brings us to "The Voice."

In 2011, when the NBC singing competition debuted, the upstart show's numbers were solid but dwarfed by those of "Idol." Then in 2012, the game changed: NBC launched the second season of "The Voice" after the conclusion of Super Bowl XLVI. The premiere was watched by an "Idol"-esque 37.6 million people. Over the course of the season, "The Voice" would return to its 2011 audience levels, but "Idol" never returned to its 2011 heights, despite the week-in, week-out presence of rising star Phillips. People had sampled the newcomer and liked it; the veteran show had become the old show. (The addition of Cowell's "The X Factor" to Fox's lineup in the fall of 2011 didn't help "Idol" look fresh either.)

Last year was the first year that nothing worked for "Idol": The show didn't click with viewers, and it didn't click with music buyers. The season finale was watched by a puny (for "Idol") 14.3 million, compared to 15.6 million for the "Voice" finale. Making matters worse, the months-long-delayed debut album from Season 13 "Idol" winner Candice Glover recorded just 19,000 first-week sales.

Glover talks about the making of her debut album:

This year, the Nielsen numbers are worse, and "The Voice," which as a squarely judge-focused show doesn't have the added burden of having to crank out legitimate stars (as it never has), is routinely outdrawing "Idol." The Fox show, in turn, is routinely dropping to regular-season lows.

The inevitable decline has become an accelerated decline (ratings have "fallen faster than we hoped," 21st Century Fox CEO Chase Carey said last month), perhaps past the point of no return.

[Related: Catch Up on 'The Voice' With Our Reality Rocks Recaps]

"The history of American television provides much evidence that once a show heads downhill in terms of ratings and watercooler chat, it never recovers," McCall said. "So, 'American Idol' will never be what it once was."

And regardless of how it happened, that's what happened.

"American Idol" airs Wendesdays at 8 p.m. and Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.